By Justin Chen
Husky teammates put aside their collegiate alliance to face off on the international hockey stage.
On December 12, 2020, after numerous postponements, the Northeastern men’s hockey team was set to finally start their highly anticipated 2020-21 season.
But instead of suiting up to skate against Merrimack, a pair of freshmen, forward Sam Colangelo and goaltender Devon Levi, were off in Michigan and Alberta, respectively, preparing for the 2021 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships (WJC). Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this installation of the WJC would be held in a bubble in Edmonton, similar to what the NBA and NHL did for their respective playoffs.
Colangelo, representing the United States, and Levi, playing for Canada, would be in bubble-like environments during training camp and the tournament – over a month total – as they competed on one of hockey’s biggest international stages. How big?
“Yeah, it’s really important,” men’s hockey head coach Jim Madigan said. “It’s rewarding to the players and allows you to test your skills against the best in the world.”
The precautions that were taken because of the pandemic were felt throughout both player’s experiences. When Levi traveled to join his team at training camp, he was subject to two weeks of isolation per Canada’s policies. Just when that was complete, he was sent right back for another two week quarantine when two positive tests were found on Canada’s roster.
“That was pretty tough,” Levi reflected, “but it was definitely worth it because I knew it was just an obstacle to get through to pursue a dream.”
While he was unable to hit the ice in his month-long quarantine, Levi kept himself mentally engaged by reading books about hockey and preparing for the tournament. Going into training camp, Canada did not have a predetermined starting goaltender, and Levi only had a handful of practices and scrimmages to make an impression.
“I was invited last minute to camp; the coaches did not really know who I was coming in,” Levi said. “All I knew that I could control was my performance and capitalizing on opportunities.”
Levi ended up getting into two scrimmages, and ran away with the starting job. Though this may have shocked the hockey community, Madigan wasn’t surprised.
“I saw him for three years so I knew how good he was,” Madigan said. “It was going to be hard for [Canada] to not name him their starting goalie.”
Though he and the Americans did not face as many logistical setbacks, Colangelo still faced mental challenges in the bubble and isolation.
“The biggest thing was probably being away from family and friends for so long,” he said. “Once the games started it kind of felt more normal, but it was still quieter in the rink as well.”
Once he entered the USA training camp, Colangelo would not see anyone outside of USA Hockey for the next 40 days, but it allowed for more bonding time with his teammates.
After facing the logistical and mental hurdles the pandemic brought, the tournament started and allowed Levi and Colangelo to settle in more. Like other major sporting events, the WJC was held without fans, and instead of drawing energy from the crowd, athletes had to get their adrenaline going themselves. Colangelo recalled a team meeting with one of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s assistant coaches to discuss how their team brought their energy and mindset while winning the Stanley Cup in the NHL bubble a few months earlier.
“The biggest thing was to [think about] playing for the guy next to you,” Colangelo remembered. The team’s slogan, “gold medal standard,” was also in the back of his mind the whole time. “When you’re in a USA jersey, it’s pretty easy to get hyped up. The main motivation factor was that gold medal and playing for the people back home.”
For Levi, the lack of a crowd was a blessing in disguise. “Honestly, I found it easier to focus on my game with no distractions around the rink,” he said. “[But] I still knew that there were a lot of people still watching and felt their presence, even though the fans weren’t physically there.”
During the tournament, the two freshmen played very different roles on their respective teams. Levi started in net for Canada and saw major minutes, while Colangelo anchored USA’s fourth line. For Levi, this role was a familiar one as he was projected to start for the Huskies, but Colangelo, usually penciled in by Madigan on the first or second lines, had to make adjustments to his mindset when playing on the back end of the lineup.
“In the gold medal game I played a minute and 48 seconds, and that’s a lot different from the 20 minutes I was used to playing,” Colangelo said.
It was also tough for him to stay focused while not playing regular shifts, but he had to be ready when his number was called.
“I thought he handled his role well,” Madigan said. “If anything, there was more hunger for him to get back into the lineup and game.”
Despite the lack of minutes, Colangelo still made an impact for the USA, including scoring a goal against Germany on his birthday. The tournament culminated with Levi and Colangelo, roommates at Northeastern, facing off in the gold medal game in hopes of winning the championship for their respective countries.
“I texted him before the game: ‘When we get to the rink, we’re not going to be friends until we’re back in school,’” Colangelo said. “He had an unbelievable tournament and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
Despite taking the loss, Levi still enjoyed the experience of playing against his roommate in the championship game.
“It would have been nice to have bragging rights,” Levi said, “but I guess I’ll have to live with that.”
Because of his historic play in the tournament (.964 GAA, 3 SO; both tournament records), Levi also received an influx of media attention during and after the tournament.
“I actually didn’t have my social media during the tournament because I didn’t want any distractions,” he said, “but after the tournament it was really cool to see how far I managed to reach out to.”
As they prepare to play in the World University Games in Switzerland in December, players like Levi, Colangelo, and junior defenseman Jordan Harris (who played in the 2020 WJC) know that leadership and knowledge of round-robin and sudden death tournament styles are important.
“This experience will help the rest of our team go through the process [of learning to play in a sudden death tournament],” Madigan said.